Experience and nonsense

The other day, I had a Convenience Store Experience.

I didn’t start the day with the goal of having a Convenience Store Experience. In fact, I didn’t even know that such a thing existed.

But as I pumped liquid gold into my car, the too-loud oldies music on the PA system stopped. A perky recorded voice proudly informed me that her employer was dedicated to ensuring that I have not just a Convenience Store Experience, but an Extraordinary Convenience Store Experience.

I was awed. Here I thought I was only making a quick visit to stop that flashing red light on my gas gauge, but I was actually getting Experienced. Jimi Hendrix would be proud.

“We want that visit to be an event. We want them to walk in and be astounded by the smiling people behind the counter. ”

I’ll bet that you didn’t realize your life was full of Convenience Store Experiences, either. And you wouldn’t be able to say that if not for a conference room table and a group of Very Smart Executives who surrounded it one day.

“We want to help our customers achieve a higher level of Convenience Store Satisfaction every time they visit.”

“I think you’re right, J.B., but I think there’s more to it than just a visit.”

“How so?”

“A visit suggests that they’re just stopping by to buy something. We want that visit to be an event. We want them to walk in and be astounded by the smiling people behind the counter. We want them to cheer when they notice that beautiful kiosk with five kinds of fresh-ground Arabica coffee brewing. We want them to see how easily they can acquire gasoline, pour a cappuccino, and find their favorite dried sausage meats all in one place. Going to purchase forty dollars of super unleaded will become a theatrical production. We want it to be an ..”

“An extravaganza!”

“No, that’s not quite it. I’m thinking more of an ..”

“An experience!”

“By God, that’s it exactly! It’s not just a trip to the gas station – it’s a Convenience Store Experience! Well, ladies and gentlemen, I think we’ve accomplished what we set out to do today. Anyone want to join me for a couple single-malts to celebrate?”

Of course, what they fail to realize is that the mere mortals who drive up to their spiffy islands and shiny pumps have never uttered the words “Convenience Store Experience.” Nor would they ever choose to use those words, even if ordered to do so at gunpoint. It’s just not natural. It’s not something ordinary human beings would say. That’s why it sounds so peculiar, and why it raised my eyebrows instead of my opinion of the store.

Unfortunately, it’s all too common. At many companies, decision-makers spend so much time listening to each other that they begin to believe their narrow, limited, and often contrived vocabulary represents common speech. The result? Impressive-sounding phrases that are really nothing more than nonsense.

Instead, they might find inspiration from one of the last century’s greatest admen, Leo Burnett. For decades, his agency created advertising that unfailingly connected with everyday people, even as it drew sneers from his presumably more sophisticated competitors. Why was Leo so effective at reaching people? A telling reason is how he spent his lunch hour.

While his competitors were busy giving their expense accounts a workout, Leo dined quietly at a lunch counter frequented by the everyday folks who bought his clients’ products. He listened to their conversations and captured the words and phrases they used. He encouraged his staff to do the same, and evaluated new ideas on how well the prospects would relate to them.

Had Leo Burnett worked on that convenience store account, it’s a safe bet that he wouldn’t have promised customers the nonsense of an Experience, extraordinary or otherwise. But he sure would have done a better job of making them feel genuinely welcome.